The Get Down: Netflix's latest series that cost $10m an episode

Baz Luhrmann breaks the bank with $10m an episode in Netflix’s hip-hop odyssey, while John Oliver has the last word

'Welcome, welcome, welcome." John Oliver, the British expat who may now be the most influential satirist in US, likes to stick to a formula, right from his opening words. There is never more than "just enough time for a brief recap" of events on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Sky Atlantic, Monday). This marks out the HBO show from the scattershot digests of Comedy Central's The Today Show, where Oliver, a strikingly geeky comedian even by British standards, first charmed the United States.

And, unlike the trenchant satire of The Colbert Report, Oliver doesn't play characters (at least, not with any comfort). In a comedic era of "fake news" Oliver is just himself. His programme knows that the real news is bizarre enough.

Unusually, Oliver devotes most of his 30-minute show to a single topic, chosen with a glorious indifference to popularity. His first broadcast, more than two years ago, led with the Indian general election, not obvious fodder for an anglophone comedy show. Now at the peak of his success, antagonising corrupt Fifa officials, goading Venezuela’s de facto dictator, or riling the Chechen leader and cat lover Ramzan Kadyrov, Oliver is even less inclined to ingratiate himself.

The week after “Make Donald Drumpf Again”, his scathing Trump takedown, became the show’s most-watched segment, Oliver bid new viewers adieu with a report on the United States’ special-purpose districts. This is a very rare comedy news review, less inclined to chase viewers than to lead them.

All of which brings us to his topic this week: journalism. Last Week Tonight is often considered journalism, something that Oliver calls "a slap in the face to the actual journalists whose work we rely on". As the segment briskly parses the decline of the newspaper industry, it also seems anxious about where its own material would be found when Buzzfeed is the last media outlet standing.

"The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning-board hearing is the day we've reached some kind of equilibrium," says the former journalist David Simon, creator of HBO's peerless The Wire and Show Me a Hero, in an illuminating clip.

In this report Oliver follows the clicks. What we find is both hilarious and depressing: an industry in such freefall that it trusts only digital metrics and social-media soothsayers; the editorial stranglehold of extremely rich businessmen owners; and – oh, my – the dawning role of artificial intelligence in harvesting news and, possibly, reviewing television. Mercifully, it could never happen here.

Oliver puts the blame on us, a public unwilling to pay for content: "I'm talking to you, the person watching this segment on YouTube using the wifi from the coffee shop underneath your apartment."

A skit on the investigative-journalism movie Spotlight, reconsidered to feature cat videos and Twitter postings, hits the spot. Oliver draws a lightly admonishing conclusion: “Sooner or later we are going to have to pay for journalism, or else we are going to pay for it.”

Here, though, the difference between journalism and Oliver’s show – with its weekly lead-in, no ads and complete editorial control, all bankrolled by HBO’s subscription model – becomes starker, and it’s telling how many media outlets have already parroted his segment on their industry.

Subscribing to The Irish Times, for example, makes wonderful, character-building sense, with attractive individual benefits, of course. But the globalised viewers of Last Week Tonight might follow the show's logic and wonder why they should pay for any single newspaper when 30 minutes of TV gives them everything they need.

Speaking of money, how could rhyming, breakbeats, spray paint, the last days of disco and a city on the brink have ever run up an eye-wateringly expensive tab? The answer is Baz Luhrmann. If television is now the widest canvas for a boundless imagination, the dizziest auteur of ravishing spectacle has arrived to the medium, breathless and buzzing, dragging along his accountants, kicking and screaming.

The Get Down, Netflix's new series, is its most expensive series yet, and one of the most expensive TV shows ever, with a cost of €120 million for two series. The money is probably on the screen, but so much else is up there that it's hard to tell.

The story of the 90-minute opening episode, by Luhrmann and the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, is so simple that only Luhrmann's hummingbird aesthetic could properly confuse it.

In the Bronx, in 1977, an orphaned teenager (Justice Smith) has a gift for words but little confidence in his abilities. Ezekiel pines for the girl, Mylene (Herizen Guardiola), who is determined to escape her religious family – and all threat of romance – by following her dreams of disco divahood.

At the same time a mysterious graffiti artist, Shaolin Fantastic (played by the staggeringly beautiful Shameik Moore), seeks a wordsmith partner to begin training in an emerging music genre, founded on breakbeats and propulsive verses, which may one day be big enough to help commission the most expensive Netflix series ever made.

This is all a farrago, but it's a tremendously enjoyable one. Subplots and cartoonish exposition abound, yet it is so direct that you could follow the story with the sound turned off. Its tone is wildly inconsistent, blending found footage of New York's economic nadir with CGI backdrops and then kitschy brickwork and fire-escape sets worthy of Disneyland. And its references are wide, restless and shameless: Saturday Night Fever, Bruce Lee, Scarface.

That, however, is the whole point. Hip hop, especially old-skool hip hop, never refused anything in its mix, building music on rhymes and references, where storytelling blurred reality and myth with glee. Luhrmann has created a hip-hop narrative, throwing the whole culture on his turntables. It might be the costliest jam you’ll ever see, but he is basically freestyling. By the frentic, ebullient third act I give up scoffing. I’m too busy dancing.

"Good God, they've discussed this case less than anyone in America," John Travolta seethes, in a fever far from Saturday night, as OJ Simpson's lawyer Robert Shapiro when the jury returns its verdict after four hours.

The conclusion of American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson (Thursday, RTÉ2, Thursday) is full of its own myth- building: Johnnie Cochran formulating his closing argument, itself rap-worthy – "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit" – in a eureka moment; Simpson slipping free of conviction just as his friend Robert Kardashian loses his own; and conversations about what the legacy of the trial will be: a milestone for race relations in the US, or the moment facts no longer mattered to the US.

But what do the obligatory title cards leave us with? The money. A civil trial found Simpson guilty and ordered him to pay $33 million to the victims’ families. He stumped up less than $500,000. On television, at least, that is a form of justice: the guilt had finally broke him.

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